Last week, I spent 9-12 hours a day at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois. Over the course of 5 days, the class I was in covered the contents of a 500-page animal training textbook and observed training sessions with many different species of animals, including penguins, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, hawks, owls, a black and white tegu, an aracari, and beluga whales.
About half of my class of 25 students was comprised of professional dog trainers, with the other half being exotic animal trainers from various zoos across the country. We also had some international students from Germany, Australia, and Canada. The classmate on my left, Tracy, worked right at Shedd and the classmate on my right, Allison, worked with large carnivores (tigers, African painted dogs, lions, etc), gibbons, and baboons.
It makes sense that zoo trainers would attend this course. However, why were so many dog trainers present? The fact is, learning how to train dolphins, sharks, komodo dragons, and monkeys can make you a better dog trainer.
We’ve said it before: the laws of learning are just that, laws. They apply to every species, dogs and humans included. The proper application of positive reinforcement is just as likely not to work as gravity.
Zoo animals are trained nearly exclusively with positive reinforcement. It would be stupid and dangerous (not to mention potentially life-threatening) to attempt to train a sea lion with collar corrections. Zoo trainers don’t even say no to their animals, as doing so may lead to frustration and frustration could be deadly if taken out on the trainer. These are large, powerful wild animals, and the trainers who work with them respect that.
In spite of keeping their training usage confined nearly entirely to one quadrant of the operant conditioning grid, zoo trainers are able to shape remarkable behaviors in their animals. Animals are trained for such behaviors as voluntary blood sampling, where the animal offers a leg, neck, or flipper on cue, then holds still while the veterinarian inserts a needle to draw blood. This behavior is done with no restraint, and the animal is free to leave at any time. We saw hawks hold still for talon trims and sea lions open their mouths to get their teeth brushed.
In addition to useful husbandry behaviors, these animals learn many other things. Fun and crowd-pleasing tricks such as porpoising (jumping in and out of the water while swimming), waving hello, and dance moves are taught to the animals for mental enrichment. They also learn to target, so that trainers can move them from one area to another without the use of force or baiting. Large groups of animals can be worked together by having each animal go to his or her own individual target, preventing aggression in a highly-charged feeding situation.
The relationship the trainers build with the animals is every bit as important to their success as their skilled use of training principles. Our instructor, Director of Training and Behavior Ken Ramirez, emphasized time and again that good animal training is a combination of relationship and technical skill. Both are important, and while training is still possible without a relationship, it may take longer and be less effective than if the trainer has taken the time to get to know his or her subject.
The trainers at Shedd spend time playing with and just observing the animals, getting to know their likes and dislikes. A new baby dolphin was present for several of our training sessions. At only 90 days old, this baby was still nursing and not yet ready to eat fish, meaning that he was still too little to formally train. However, he was still assigned a trainer at every training session, who played with and observed him, getting to know him and letting him begin to build a bond with his trainers right from the start. He will already have a great foundation of trust when he is ready to begin formal training.
All of these principles apply to our pet dogs just as much as they apply to elephants and wallabies. There is no need to ever frighten or hurt your dog in the name of training. Complex, reliable behaviors can be trained quickly and easily using positive reinforcement and environmental manipulation. The more you can get to know and respect your dog as an individual, the more he will learn to trust you and look to you for guidance. Just because we can get away with harsh techniques with our domestic dogs doesn’t make this okay. The proof that your dog can be trained for any behavior using just a clicker and treats is out there.
In the following weeks, we’ll discuss more of the basic and advanced training principles covered during this course, as well as the practical applications of these techniques.